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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Conservator's Records To Be Subpoenaed As Prosecutors Score Triple Victory in Peruvian Artifacts Forfeiture Cases

Federal prosecutors recently scored three court victories in two forfeiture actions and one subpoena case involving allegedly contraband Peruvian artifacts.

A federal magistrate in New Mexico recommended that a conservator, who may have handled contraband objects, turn over his business records to prosecutors under subpoena, a decision that certainly will attract attention among conservation professionals since they are rarely the subject of cultural property claims filed by the government.

A federal judge in Miami, meanwhile, ruled that the two cases seeking to forfeit the Peruvian objects could not be halted by a parallel criminal investigation, if one even existed. The court also denied a request to dismiss the forfeiture cases in their entirety.

The Peruvian artifacts forfeiture cases began in 2010 when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized 33 objects from Jean Combe Fritz’s luggage. Authorities suspected Combe Fritz and his father of engaging in a smuggling ring, according to information supplied by court papers. The two made 21 trips to Miami in ten years, returning to Peru after one or two days’ stay, which caught customs officials’ attention.

Prosecutors alleged in court pleadings that “[i]n August 2010, Combe-Fritz attempted to smuggle thirty-two ancient Peruvian artifacts into the United States through the Miami International Airport. Because Customs officers could not confirm the authenticity of the apparently-ancient artifacts without an expert appraisal, Combe was released that day. The U.S. Attorney’s Office Major Crimes section subsequently declined to prosecute the criminal case because Combe had returned to Peru.”

Without the possibility of prosecution, federal attorneys decided to seek title to the objects through civil forfeiture with the intent to return the heritage objects to Peru.

Prosecutors filed a civil action in Miami federal district court on May 10, 2013 to forfeit 29 objects consisting of a Moche bone carving (pictured here), a 12 piece Inca burial bundle, an Early Horizon/Chavin stone carving, and more. They argued that the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) forbade their entry into the United States.

Prosecutors filed a second forfeiture complaint on July 18, 2013 seeking to forfeit three more objects, this time arguing that they should be forfeited under 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c)(1)(A) because they were stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely introduced into the United States.

While it is rare for a claimant to step forward in a cultural property forfeiture case, Jean Combe Fritz did, and his lawyers have vigorously battled the government ever since.

They have argued that the CPIA does not apply, that the objects seized cannot be shown to be Pre-Columbian or Colonial, that it is not possible to determine whether Peru is the source country, that federal prosecutors violated due process, that federal attorneys brought the case to the wrong court, and that the items seized by CBP weren't even banned cultural property.

The case stalled for one year after federal attorneys attempted to depose Combe Fritz, an effort resisted by the claimant’s lawyers on grounds that the government cannot go searching for criminal evidence by using the civil court process. Prosecutors countered by accusing the claimant of delay.

Combe Fritz’s lawyers filed a motion to stay the civil forfeiture proceedings until federal authorities concluded their criminal investigation. But prosecutors objected, writing on July 10, 2014 that there was no criminal investigation and no possibility of prosecution. “The Government disclosed this fact to counsel early in the litigation,” they explained.

Notwithstanding this representation by the government, one day earlier, on July 9, federal prosecutors in New Mexico targeted the conservator who allegedly handled pre-Columbian artifacts brought to the U.S. by Combe Fritz. Prosecutors told the court that the conservator was not implicated in any wrongdoing, but that they wanted information from him to find out who was running Peruvian artifacts between Miami and New Mexico.

The claimant’s lawyers tried to convince the Miami federal court that the existence of the New Mexico case clearly revealed that a criminal investigation was underway. But the judge in Miami would not stop the forfeiture cases. The court even denied the claimant’s motion to dismiss the matters outright, not just delay them.

The federal magistrate in New Mexico, meanwhile, authorized a subpoena to be issued to the conservator for information relating to the Miami forfeiture cases despite his objections.

The conservator objected to turning over specific information to the government, stating that the information sought was irrelevant to the forfeiture cases in Miami; insisting that he had not received any material from Combe Fritz; protesting that the disclosure of business records would violate the confidentiality necessary to conduct conservation work for his clients; and complaining that retrieving company's records would be too burdensome.

The magistrate noted that the conservator was willing to provide some information and submit to deposition questioning about certain matters,” but that the conservator says “he does not know Combe Fritz, was never contacted concerning any of the 32 items at issue in the Florida cases, and has no reason to believe that any of his clients has anything to do with Combe Fritz or the 32 items.”

The magistrate sided with the government, nevertheless, reasoning in his recommended disposition of August 29,
I agree with the United States that the information sought is relevant to its claims …. It is beside the point whether the government already has some evidence to prove its claims. There is no limit on the quantum of evidence that the government may amass—within the rules—to make its case as strong as possible. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). I find that [the conservator’s] records and knowledge are reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of evidence that is admissible and relevant to the elements that the government must prove …. 
The United States … argues that the information sought pursuant to the subpoena is relevant to the elements that it must prove…. The government's aim is not merely to identify the intermediary. Rather, the government's aim is to identify the intermediary and, more importantly, to secure his/her testimony as an "eyewitness[] to acts of the conspiracy and the persons involved in it, as would be the person who was to transport the textile from Miami to New Mexico[;] that information could be critical to the government's case." [Doc. 9] at 4.
The magistrate carefully reframed the government’s original subpoena to restrict overbroad language and to confine the document disclosures to narrowly tailored information about pre-Columbian textiles. Indeed, the conservator’s lawyer informed the district court that his client worked in textiles alone and not with other types of artifacts.

Approximately three weeks before the magistrate's recommendation to issue the subpoena, the federal district court in Miami ruled that the forfeiture cases would push forward despite the claimant’s request that the court process stop temporarily . The court wrote,
Claimant argues that "by engaging in discovery and offering evidence in support of his interest in the seized objects, he will be forced to incriminate himself in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights." (D.E. 74 at 2). The Government has not indicted Claimant and further states that no actual prosecution or criminal investigation is in progress.  
....
The mere existence of parallel criminal and civil proceedings does not compel a stay of the civil proceeding. 
Under the circumstances presented here, the Court finds that a stay is not warranted. Claimant has submitted no evidence that his invocation of the privilege against self-incrimination would compel an adverse judgment against him. . . . If "special circumstances" arise that Claimant believes warrants a stay during the course of litigation, then Claimant may re-file his motion.
The claimant’s attorneys raised “special circumstances” in their motion to reconsider dated August 16. They claimed that “new facts clearly reveal that the Government is using civil discovery in this case to further its criminal inquiry,” asserting that “new evidence will show that the criminal inquiry is active and ongoing, despite the Government’s unsubstantiated protestations to the contrary.”

The claimant’s lawyers said federal prosecutors’ efforts to compel the conservator to turn over documents “strongly supports Claimant’s position that the Government is improperly using civil discovery to supplement its ongoing criminal inquiry or as an improper substitute for an open and outright criminal investigation. Indeed, the non-party witnesses in New Mexico have corroborated this position and presented compelling, independent evidence in support of the same …[demonstrating] that the Government’s purported civil discovery demands were in fact issued in order to generate evidence of a criminal smuggling ring.”

The court rejected such claims and ruled on September 9 that "[e]ven if the Government is engaged in an active and ongoing criminal inquiry, the mere existence of parallel criminal and civil proceedings does not compel a stay of these civil proceedings.”

The court soon thereafter ruled against the Claimant’s Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction, Denial of Due Process of Law, and Failure to State a Cause of Action, a pleading that had been pending for one year. Judge Joan Lenard weighed both the claimant’s arguments and the government’s objection, which included the government’s position that “…smuggling protected cultural property is not ‘commercial trade’: it is criminal[] activity.

In its ruling against the motion to dismiss, the Miami federal district court first determined that it had jurisdiction to hear the case. “Because this action involves the forfeiture of property and does not involve the recovery of civil penalties, the recovery of a bond, or the recovery of customs duties, the Court has jurisdiction….,” the court wrote. The case was not required to be heard by the Court of International Trade as the claimant’s lawyers argued.

Second, the district court concluded that prosecutors sufficiently stated their claims in both the CPIA forfeiture complaint and the 15 U.S.C. § 1595a forfeiture complaint.

Citing in part Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Customs, Judge Lenard ruled that the CPIA forfeiture complaint “demonstrated that the artifacts in this action consist of Pre-Columbian perishable remains, lithics, metal objects, and textiles. (First Compl. ¶ 16). Such items are listed on a designated list within the meaning of the CPIA. See 19 C.F.R. 12.104g; Archaeological and Ethnological Material From Peru, 62 Fed. Reg. 31712-01 (June 11, 1997). Claimant has failed to demonstrate that the artifacts are legally importable by providing a State Party issued certification or any other documentation certifying that the artifacts may be legally imported into the United States.”

The § 1595a forfeiture complaint was also sufficient, the court explained:
Here, the artifacts were stashed in Claimant’s luggage. CBP officers located the artifacts in Claimant’s luggage only after conducting a secondary examination. When questioned about the artifacts, Claimant made false statements regarding how he came to possess the artifacts, his purpose for bringing the artifacts into the United States, and the individuals to whom he intended to deliver the artifacts. Additionally, Plaintiff alleges that the introduction of the artifacts into the United States was a violation of Peruvian law. Based on these facts set forth in the Second Complaint, the Court finds that there is probable cause to believe that Claimant clandestinely introduced the artifacts into the United States contrary to law.
The forfeiture cases have been captioned as U.S. v. Twenty-Nine Pre-Columbian and Colonial Artifacts from Peru and U.S. v. Three Artifacts Constituting Cultural Property of Peru.

By Rick St. Hilaire Text copyrighted 2014 by Cultural Heritage Lawyer. Blog url: culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post without the express written consent of CHL is prohibited.